Friday, November 22, 2013

Speak to Us with Utmost Candor: Thoughts on the JFK Anniversary

As I write this now, it is fifty years and an hour from the time that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  It has the feel of great significance to me; it should.  It is a defining moment for contemporary American life.  Much of what and how we conduct ourselves in the world in which I have grown up and in which we all live has arguably been defined by those moments in Dallas.

One such change, and we were reading more about it in the recent Pew report the other day, was with regards to our society's increasing focus on the individual and what is "in it for me."  Rabbis and other Jewish leader speak, rightly or wrongly, of a heyday for Conservative Judaism, in about the time of the Kennedy Administration, when synagogues were booming and volunteerism on behalf of the community seemed to be at a peak.

Now I'm not sure that was ever truly the case.  I think there are many good things going on today in synagogues, and I suspect some of that volunteerism in the 60s was as much about proving who made the best casserole or could bowl the most strikes as it was about truly improving peoples' lives.

It is telling to me, though, that in early 1964, responding to words spoken by the Mayor of Dallas, Earle Cabell, that one of Dallas' leading clergyman, Rabbi Levi Olan spoke the message I would like to relate in part to you (on his regular radio program - for those of you who don't know that's like a podcast).

Rabbi Olan was responding to what the mayor had said, which was, "I call upon the churches and synagogues for such devotion to our faith that they will speak to us with utmost candor, both of ideals of truth and of the shortcomings of our community, so that we may be guided into the paths of right... I call upon the people to bear every means of strengthening our moral fiber and to make our a community of tolerance and understanding."

That in itself is impressive.  The notion that the religious institutions of the city should be thought of potentially playing such an important role in its life.  But beyond that, Rabbi Olan's response is one of true moral integrity and prophetic challenge.  He demands that among other things the city not fail in its efforts to move forward with civil rights, protections for the hungry and poor, and otherwise earn the good reputation it felt it had lost.

He also worries about a particular sort of problem that he fears may rise up, "We have accepted the personal one which begins by asking, 'what is in it for me?' So we do not help the dependent child adequately, we do not feed the hungry child, and we do not care about slums, drop outs, second class culture. These do not fit our self-interest code of values."

Olan concludes after this that the churches and synagogues cannot simply reflect back the values of the people but talking to them about how they might seek to rise above - and for Olan, the answer is to make concern for others an essential part of who we try to be.  That sounds like such a universal value, but it is truly a Jewish one at its core.

And I believe, it is as resonant today as it was half a century ago.  In many ways it is the antidote necessary to inspire and motivate our current generation of Jews.  They clearly aren't interested in the synagogue as bowling league and casserole bake-off center, but I don't think Rabbi Olan was either.  I think the best ideals of the 60s are still as applicable, if not more so, now - the concern with our fellow human beings and lifting them up.  Recognizing our responsibility to them, as fellow citizens, as Jews, as human beings.

It seems to me we had a president who once delivered just such a message, too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

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